Most of the time when I walk into a retail store or a restaurant in the United States, a cheery, enthusiastic employee pops up in front of me, greets me with a smile, and asks how I’m doing before they even ask what I’m looking for or what they can help me with. To my surprise, that’s not the scene I’d see in Germany. In fact, some customer service experiences I had in Germany were quite the opposite. For instance, when we first moved there, we make almost daily trips to IKEA to furnish our new apartment. We didn’t have a car, so we had to get some of the larger items delivered. We walked up to the delivery service counter and told the employee that we’d like to have the items delivered. Even though my German was already pretty solid at that time, every new experience I’d go through still made me a bit nervous. Would I understand what they said to me? Would I know all the right words I needed to express myself for that specific exchange? My heart started beating faster as I anticipated the uncertainty. The employee asked, “Wer ist der Empfänger?” Empfänger means recipient, and luckily I had learned this word the week before. I thought I understood the question she was asking, but I didn’t understand why she was asking it. My husband and I were both there at the counter asking to have our items delivered; it’s not like we’d buy them and have them delivered to someone else. I thought I must have misunderstood, so I asked her to repeat herself. This time she said more impatiently, “Wer bekommt die Lieferung?” (Who is getting the delivery?) I did understand correctly. Puzzled, I told her that we were the recipients. Maybe I came off as unfriendly through my nervousness and self doubt during that exchange. In any case, I was quite shocked when she replied in a snappy tone, “Oh, you live together. Well, I couldn’t have known that!”
I’d soon come to find out that unlike the quality of its appliances, Germany isn’t known for the quality of its customer service. Coming from the country where the customer is king, this took some getting used to. I’ve also heard Germans complain about the customer service situation there, so I knew it wasn’t just me. I had already noticed small differences in customer service situations, such as having to ask for help finding something in retail stores or having to ask for the check in restaurants (more on that here) instead of employees or servers coming up to you to ask if you need anything, but I quickly learned that there were many more differences, and behind those differences was a different way of thinking that I’d actually come to appreciate.
There’s a common saying in the US that “the customer is always right.” In Germany, that’s not always the case. I found this out one time when our internet stopped working and I had to call customer service. First of all, calling a customer service line is not free, and it can actually be quite expensive. We didn’t have a landline phone, so I had to use my prepaid cell phone. I ended up being on hold for so long, I ran out of minutes on my phone! The call cost me about €30 worth of minutes! When I complained about that when I finally got to talk to a person, their response was something along the lines of, “Well, you knew what the fees were before you called.”
In addition to the customer not necessarily being right, I also noticed that employees are generally far less apologetic when something goes wrong. If your order comes out wrong at a restaurant, servers typically just take your plate back and fix it with no apology. Occasionally, you’ll get a small Entschuldigung, but it’s not a guarantee. I worked in a restaurant all through high school and a few summers in college, and I can’t even count the number of times American customers would try to get free food because the server made a mistake in their order or their food took too long. This is unheard of in Germany. If the server makes a mistake, they simply make it right.
I began to realize that there might just be a different way of thinking behind what a lot of Americans perceive as “bad” customer service in Germany. To me, it seems like there’s an understanding in the German culture that employees are humans, too. They want to enjoy their work, and allowing irate customers to berate you or yell and curse at you does not exactly scream job satisfaction. In other words, the customer should earn the politeness and respect of the employee just as much as the employee should earn the respect of the customer. No one expects employees to put on a super-friendly façade. They just interact naturally with customers, and sometimes they aren’t happy when doing it: they’re human, too.
Respecting employees as fellow human beings goes both ways, too. One time in Berlin, I was at a popular home decor store called Butler’s, and I accidentally broke a small coffee cup. It wasn’t expensive, which was a relief because my American instincts of “you break it, you buy it” kicked in. I immediately went up to the register to tell the employees that I broke the item and needed to pay for it. They must have recognized that I am human, too, and am just as capable of making mistakes because they didn’t let me pay for it. The salesperson just shrugged her shoulders and said, “it could just as easily happened to one of us. Don’t worry about it.”
Now that I’m back in the US, I sometimes feel that the friendliness can be a bit over the top, sometimes superficial, and occasionally borderline intrusive. I got pretty weirded out one time when a cashier at the grocery store asked me what my plans were that evening. To be clear, I do think it’s always nice to be friendly, but I now prefer customer service interactions that fall somewhere in the middle of the US-Germany continuum. My experience with German customer service taught me to be a more assertive employee: I try to be as friendly as I can, but I no longer allow customers to berate me, call me names, or raise their voice at me. It has also made me a better customer. When I go to a restaurant or to a store, I’m now more aware of the fact that the person helping me is doing just that: helping me. People are much more willing to help if I treat them like my equal and show them I understand that they are human, too. In the end, I appreciate when people are honest and real with me, although being friendly never hurts!